Editor's note: Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization for employment rights of lower-wage workers.
(CNN) -- On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama laid out an encouraging reminder of what America is all about: a country that succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does his or her fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules. He talked about an America where hard work pays off, so that you can raise a family, save for the future, and create even better opportunities for your children.
But as Obama noted, that promise is not panning out for millions of Americans. Labor compensation has plummeted. Americans are relying on low-paying jobs to replace the better ones they lost during the recession. Our country's economic policies have become tilted toward the wealthiest few, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. It's no wonder people have taken to the streets: Income inequality has grown for decades and devastated the middle class. All that hard work, for many, is not paying off.
When the president delivered his first State of the Union in January 2009, almost no one knew just how bad things were. Over the first six months of that year, we lost over 3 million jobs. The unemployment rate climbed to 9%, and it stayed there or higher for a record 29 consecutive months.
But the situation has markedly improved -- and Obama's policies have made a difference.
The Recovery Act saved or created between 2.2 million and 4.2 million jobs through the second quarter of 2011. Federal support for state and local governments helped preserve public sector jobs and maintained vital services during the downturn. Thanks to a boost in enforcement resources, in 2011 the Department of Labor collected a record number of back wages wrongfully withheld from workers -- totaling $224.8 million -- and helped over 275,000 workers.
Perhaps most important, we have maintained the nation's most robust program of federal unemployment insurance ever. From July 2008 through last October, the federal unemployment insurance extensions helped 17.9 million job seekers and kept more than 6 million workers and their families out of poverty. Keeping the safety net intact has allowed people to stay afloat, contribute to the economy and continue looking for work.
We've turned an important corner: Job growth has averaged 142,000 for the past six months. But we're not home yet, and big problems remain.
Unemployment is unacceptably high. Nearly 24 million workers are either unemployed or underemployed, which means the "real" unemployment rate is still over 15%. To get back to pre-recession employment levels, we need to add 10.8 million jobs.
The long-term unemployed may be forgotten, but they are not gone. Over 42% of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer, and unemployed workers today have been unemployed for an average of 40.8 weeks -- over nine months.
Meanwhile, threats to basic economic security programs continue. Workers' wages are at a five-decade low, more Americans are without health insurance, and retirement security is slipping away for older workers. Efforts to dismantle unemployment insurance and worker rights -- including bargaining rights and basic protections like the minimum wage -- make navigating the labor market and economic terrain even more treacherous for working families.
And the future is frightening: Millions of midlife and older workers are moving toward retirement with substantially reduced savings because of job loss, stock market routs of their 40l(k)s, and declining home values. Young workers are entering the labor force at a time of limited opportunities and lower wages. This disadvantage will significantly affect their lifetime earnings potential.
Thankfully, several proposals the president announced in the State of the Union would shift the balance. We applaud his calls for education investment, job training, rebuilding our nation's infrastructure, supporting the rights of workers, a fair tax code, and making sure that everybody plays by the same rules.
But more needs to be done, and here are just a few examples. To start with, we must restore the federal minimum wage to a decent level. To have the same spending value as it did in 1968, the minimum wage today would need to be about $10.39 per hour. It's now $7.25. Consumer spending is still the prime driver for our economy, and increasing the incomes of families that spend earnings on basic necessities is critical.
We also must preserve safeguards for Americans at work and at home. Cuts to workplace safety and fairness will not get us more jobs; they will just make the jobs we already have worse.
Finally, the two-month extension of unemployment insurance that Congress passed just before the holidays is set to expire at the end of February. Millions of unemployed workers will be once again at risk of losing federal unemployment insurance. Congress needs to fully renew the program through 2012.
As Obama made clear Tuesday night, we all have a stake in the future success of our country. America is still the place where you can make it if you try. But we cannot fulfill that promise by shortchanging investments in our kids, our workers, our environment and our economy. The America we built after World War II -- anchored by a strong middle class -- can be built again. We will do it by restoring an economy that works for all of us.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christine Owens